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Furman has built one of the nation’s top mock trial programs

Furman Mock Trial

So far this fall, the Furman mock trial team has participated in tournaments in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Durham, Elon, Irvine, and Philadelphia.

The extensive travel and countless hours of participation pay off for Furman Mock Trial, an extraordinarily popular program.

With 18 straight bids to the American Mock Trial Association’s National Championship Tournament, Furman Mock Trial has become a force in national circles. In 15 of those appearances, the team has finished the season in the top 10 of its division. Despite not winning the title, Furman posted the best overall record at nationals during the 2000-2009 decade; and on more than one occasion two Furman teams have landed in the top 10.

In the driver’s seat from the beginning, mock trial director Dr. Glen Halva-Neubauer recalls early moments in the program’s history. Former Political Science Chair and now Riley Institute Executive Director Don Gordon, and former Circuit Judge Joe Watson ’75 were instrumental in nudging the program forward during the embryonic years, along with strong support from Dean A.V. Huff.

“We started this in 1995—I had no idea what I was doing,” says Dr. Halva-Neubauer. But it didn’t take long for the bug to incubate. “And once you get the mock trial bug, it’s hard to shake,” he says.

Mere rookies, Halva-Neubauer’s mockers somehow snagged a pretty successful season from the get go. “The first watershed moment for us was 1996 in St. Paul (Minn.). We’re there, we’re upstarts, and we end up in contention for the championship until the last round.” The professor keeps a handful of trophies in his small office. He proudly reaches for the trophy that marks the team’s seventh place finish that inaugural year.

Currently ranked 11th in the country, Furman continues to build its reputation at elite invitational tournaments while earning high marks for hosting the Bell Tower Tournament (formerly Ney National), a super regional AMTA tournament.

The season begins with the announcement of the criminal or civil case file in August. Then, after weeks of preparation, schools participate in invitational tournaments in the fall and early spring to ready themselves for 25 regional AMTA-sanctioned tournaments that take place in February.

In 2014, AMTA included more than 550 mock trial teams from approximately 350 universities and colleges spanning the country. The top teams from each regional tournament advance and compete in the super regionals or Opening Round Championship Series (ORCS) held in March. One hundred and ninety two teams battle it out in the ORCS round, then the top six teams from each ORCS tournament advance to AMTA’s National Championship Tournament in April. Only 48 teams advance and compete in the National Championship Tournament. These 48 teams are divided into two divisions of 24 teams each. The first-place teams from each face off in AMTA’s National Championship Final Round.

So what does it take to have a booming mock trial program? Dr. Halva-Neubauer says it starts with a crop of bright, articulate, and competitive kids who have superb time management skills and a desire to work with each other in a team environment.

But he also says students don’t have to fit a particular academic mold to be a part of the team. He reels off majors outside the usual pre-law/political science suspects—math, history, modern languages, religion, and economics.

“What’s great is that our student profile has expanded to include more majors. I love that. It gives us more support around the university, more exposure to faculty . . . mock trial students don’t just go to law school . . . it’s an activity for all comers,” he says.

The reality that Furman mock trial draws students from all backgrounds and majors is important for team building. “It’s an activity that brings a diverse set of people together who would not know each other absent this,” says Halva-Neubauer.

With all the hours that funnel into mock trial preparation and the weekend-long tournaments, students come away with a stockpile of life skills. Says mock trial coach and Furman alum Brad Rustin ’03, attorney at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, “The biggest change I see in students over time is their level of judgment and maturity. Mock trial teaches you how to compete while remaining civil and respectful of others.”

Coach Lindsay Builder ’07, also of Nelson Mullins, has witnessed “astronomical” growth in students in his four years of coaching. Andrew Mueller ’14 (Tinley Park, Ill.) started out as a witness in his first two years and transitioned to the program’s top male attorney. Builder says Mueller really took to what the coaches term “Mock Trial 2.0,” where they teach students to move beyond the practice of rote memory.

Builder says he unfortunately sees a fair amount of “scripted robots” in mock court settings where trials are little more than “orchestrated ballets” with each word memorized and every step choreographed. “We want our kids to think and act like lawyers—reacting, analyzing the situation, determining on their feet what’s their next move.” Builder says Mueller was particularly good at that, but he was by no means an isolated case. “I could talk about several kids just like him.”

Kaitlyn Pugh ’17 (Edgefield, S.C.) says, “Not knowing what the other teams are going to do is unnerving at times, but nothing beats the rush you get when you stand up to give a statement or question a witness. Or, if you’re the witness, being on the stand gives you a chance to control the trial.”

Jordan Brown ’16 (Gastonia, N.C.) knows what it’s like to think on his feet. Brown, who plans to go to math grad school and teach at the secondary level, says, “Teams can be kind of cutthroat out there and will try to throw you off your game.” He says improvisation and the ability to recover become important skills.

Brown remembers a round against the University of Virginia at a West Coast tournament last season where the prosecution’s pithy direct examination of a witness left Brown with virtually no cross. “So I say to myself, ‘did they really just do that?’ I stand up, and don’t remember what I ask the witness, but it has no resemblance to what I expected to say.” Brown says “wing-it” moments like that happen often, and tackling them with 100 percent confidence is part of the game.

Rustin says, “I tell students to have fun, show off, and go 100 miles per hour in the court room.” Sometimes that strategy can get teams into trouble, but it’s good for scoring points with the judges.

Rustin describes a round in a Washington, D.C., court house in which Kiersty DeGroote ’14 (Lyman, S.C.), during an entire cross examination of a witness, teetered on chair in her heels and business suit to demonstrate what a witness saw while standing on a stall toilet, peering over the wall. From that point forward, her performance was dubbed the “chair cross,” and Rustin says the “judges ate it up.” And the infamous “chair cross” became code for pulling out all the stops in the court room.

The moxie it takes to pull stunts like that, take risks and be vulnerable comes with practice “Mock trial is a jealous, time-sucking activity,” says Halva-Neubauer. So in the 10 or more hours a week students and coaches spend studying the case file, preparing opening statements and closing arguments, setting up demonstratives, poring over rules of evidence, and prepping witnesses, there’s no time for petty differences, but lots of time for fostering trust and relationships.

A spirit of mutual respect among coaches and team members allows a safe place to air criticisms. “Mock trial teaches you how to give and receive constructive criticism,” says Builder. “That’s how our teams work.”

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